SAO PAULO (AP) — The feel-good Palestinian winner of last year's 'Arab Idol' competition kicked off the FIFA Congress on Tuesday with an impromptu call to his homeland, signing off his performance with an emphatic "Viva Palestine."
The gesture in Sao Paulo came as Israelis and Palestinians continued their stalemate over the free movement of Palestinian soccer players and against a backdrop of FIFA President Sepp Blatter urging the parties to "separate politics and sports."
Wearing a Muslim headscarf around his neck, Mohammed Assaf, the young wedding singer from the Gaza Strip whose songs often touch upon the Palestinian struggle for independence, sang before world soccer leaders in Arabic and English.
Upon finishing his act, he abruptly asked for the microphone to thank Blatter and to single out Jibril Rajoub, the head of the Palestine soccer association, who has been sparring with Israel over the player movement issue.
Late last month, in a visit to the region, Blatter said he hoped an agreement between the two soccer associations would be "signed and sealed" before the World Cup began. All sides had a meeting at FIFA's Sao Paulo hotel Monday but did not appear to make any significant progress.
The tournament opens Thursday in Sao Paulo, with host Brazil taking on Croatia.
Palestinians complain that some of their players have faced restrictions, and Rajoub has asked FIFA to suspend Israel if these are not lifted.
Israel says the restrictions have nothing to do with sport, but rather security, and accuses Rajoub of inciting against it.
Israeli Sports Minister Limor Livnat wrote to Blatter Tuesday to defend her country's actions. She said Israel would allow Palestinian athletes to "exit and enter for the purpose of sports, excluding occasions in which there are attempts to make use of sports in order to injure or threaten the security of our citizens."
Livnat singled out the example of a Palestinian national team player, Sameh Maraabeh, whom Israel detained in late April on suspicion that he met an Islamic Hamas militant during the team's training in Qatar. She alleged that the player received funds, a mobile phone and a written message from the Hamas activist. Maraabeh remains in detention.